Monty mania proves to be a potent force for unity as Asian youths rush to emulate cricketing hero

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Isher Panesar stands and tosses the ball from one hand to the other as he practises with friends at Luton Town & Indians Cricket Club yesterday.

The younger brother of Monty Panesar, the poster boy of English cricket, and the first Sikh to play for the national side, considers his sibling's achievements.

When it is suggested to him that Luton is associated with Muslim extremism and Monty can do something to change that, he appears irritated.

"At the end of the day, are you going to judge us by who we are, or where we are from?'' the 21-year-old computer science graduate said.

Barely a year ago, the Bedfordshire commuter town became associated with Islamic extremism. One of the July 7 bombers, Jermaine Lindsay, worshipped here, and it was at the city's main railway station that the group of suicide bombers were chillingly captured together on CCTV.

But now the town is embracing Monty mania, which reached a peak after the spinner captured eight wickets last week in England's Test match victory over Pakistan at Old Trafford.

As popular for his eccentricity as his beguiling bowling, Monty is a favourite for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award, and he could even rival the boxer, Amir Khan, as the most popular British Asian sportsman.

"They've all gone mad for Monty,'' screamed The Luton News on its front page to coincide with the start of yesterday's third Test at Headingley.

The oldest of three children, whose parents emigrated from Punjab, India, Mudhsuden "Monty" Panesar Singh, 24, still lives with his family near the Luton and Dunstable Hospital and commutes to play for England and his county, Northamptonshire. Due to the demands of professional cricket, he is not always able to accompany his family to pray at the Sikh temple they frequent in Coventry.

Since he made his England debut this winter in India, interest in cricket has rocketed among Luton's youth. Monty's talents were honed at the town's Luton Town & Indians club, where a waiting list has now started for junior memberships.

Among the new junior members are large numbers of youths from the 500-strong Sikh community. Almost two decades ago, Norman Tebbitt suggested that a person's true national identity could be ascertained by which cricket team they support. A straw poll among Luton's youth yesterday suggested they would all pass the "Tebbitt test'' with flying colours.

Monty's rise to prominence has been welcomed by community leaders in the area, who consider him a role model for racial integration.

"A lot of people look up to him, not just from our religion, but other religions,'' said Ranjit Singh Dubb, 52, a committee member of the Guru Nanak Gurdwara, one of Luton's two Sikh temples.

"Local kids go round to his house and knock on the door for autographs. These are Muslim kids as well as Sikhs.''

The Sikh community in Luton began arriving in the 1960s as they found employment at Vauxhall, Electrolux and the SKF ball bearing factory. Many are employed at the town's international airport. The majority live in the Bury Park area, where they are vastly outnumbered by the Muslim population.

Mr Singh, who liaises between the police and the Sikh community, insists there are no community tensions, adding that his temple is a member of the multireligious Council of Faiths.

"We are self-contained and have hardly any problems with the authorities or the police," he said. "We look at ourselves as English and British first. Most of us here are the second or third generation growing up in this country and we want to teach our values to our children.''

At Monty's local club, the deputy groundsman, Hitu Naik, Monty's long-time mentor, is preparing the pitch for a second XI game today.

He says religious denomination at the club, which was formed by a merger between the main Luton side and the local Indian team, is irrelevant.

"Monty is a hero here. There's no denying it,'' he said. "But he's a hero for a whole range of people. We don't really see people's religion, but if we detected any extremism, we would discourage it.''

As Mr Naik speaks, Monty's father, Parmjit, wearing a white turban and fiddling with his car keys, wanders out into the middle of the pitch. His presence in Luton begs the question as to why he's not in Headingley watching Monty in action.

"He offers me tickets and tells me to come,'' Mr Panesar said. "It's a very proud moment when your son represents England. But, when I do go to watch him, I get very nervous and he never seems to get any wickets.''